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the tuesday essay

Frances Twitty

It's the start of a new year for Canadian literature. The hoopla surrounding last year's Giller has quieted down. The Governor-General's Literary Awards have been handed out. Soon Canada Reads will fill the gap and take over the public's imagination. For most literary institutions, January is a sleepy time.

Break time is over, though, for literary prize foundations. I'm sure the Giller advisory board has already started drafting up potential jury lists for 2010, and that someone at the Canada Council has been tasked with a similar function. But I'm also certain that none of the names bandied about will be those of Canadian literature scholars.

Why? Because apparently literary critics (as opposed to reviewers) have no place in Canadian literary prize competitions.

Consider this: In the last 15 years of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, only two of out of the 36 jurists have been academics - one of whom helped create the prize.

Or have a glance at the 2009 jury members for poetry or fiction for the GG awards. Or at any point over the previous 20 years. See any scholars?

Now, some of you might argue that those lists include names of people who are on faculty in English departments. That may be true, but let's face it: Those jurists are not traditional literary critics; they are creative writers who teach English courses.

And for those naysayers who think that having a Canadian literature scholar on jury lists would affect the marketability of a literary award competition, I would hasten to point out that the Man Booker Prize doesn't suffer from having academics on its jury. In fact, including scholars is part of its mandate: "The Man Booker judges are selected from the country's finest critics, writers and academics to maintain the consistent excellence of the prize."

And so I have to ask myself: How is it that the opinion of literary scholars can mean less to us in matters of Canadian literature than that of a lawyer, an author, or a radio host? Scholars are people who have spent their careers learning and refining their reading skills, and who apply those skills daily to works of literature.

Or to put it in layman's terms, one of the main jobs of Canadian literature scholars is to judge literature. That's what we pay them to do. In fact, it's the same skill that they pass on to thousands of Canadian students who take their courses each year - students who go on to become the writers, publishers, reviewers and lawyers who currently make up literary prize jury lists.

There are a number of worthy scholars in this country who could do justice to the task: people like David Bentley, the Carl F. Klinck Professor in Canadian Literature at the University of Western Ontario, who recently received the distinguished Premier's Discovery Award for Arts and Humanities; Laura Moss, the director of the UBC International Canadian Studies Centre; or Tony Tremblay, professor and Canada Research Chair at St.Thomas University in Fredericton.

Yet for some reason, these critics just don't make the cut when it comes to judging literary competitions. Instead, they have been ostracized from the literary community like a group of cultural monks, spending their days promoting the faith while being refused a place at the literary altar.

But why? It's not like current process for jury selection comes without its priestly pitfalls. Witness the recent outcry over the choice of British biographer Victoria Glendinning for the 2009 Giller jury, and her less than flattering comments about Canadian literature in the Financial Times: "It seems in Canada," she wrote, "you only have to write a novel to get grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and from your provincial Arts Council."

Or what about the scandal-that-wasn't back in 2008 over Toronto writer Jacob Scheier? He won the Governor-General's Literary Award for Poetry and, coincidentally, thanked two of the three jury members in the acknowledgments to his prize-winning collection, More to Keep Us Warm.

Instead of debating the merits of domestic over foreign judges and dealing with scandals over potential jury conflicts of interest, why not take a chance on a group of cultural workers who are as passionate about literature in this country as everyone else?

Who knows, allowing Canadian literature scholars to participate in award juries might also help bridge the chasm between the literary community and the educators who make the curriculum decisions that keep Canada's literary tradition alive. And that would certainly be a good thing for writers and publishers, as well as for our students.

Thomas Hodd has never been asked to be part of a literary prize jury.

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